About: Ilona Bray

Ilona Bray is a former attorney and the author of several Nolo immigration books. Her working background includes both solo immigration practice and working or volunteering as an immigration attorney with nonprofit organizations in Seattle and California.

Recent Posts by Ilona Bray

California Courts Unsympathetic to Association Homeowners Trying to Avoid Fees for Renting Out Property

Any California homeowner living in a community governed by a condo or homeowners association (HOA) and hoping to earn a little extra cash with short-term rentals should pay heed to a recent decision by the state’s Second Appellate District Court of Appeal, called Oak Shores Community Association v. Burlison. (Second Appellate District, March 24, 2015).

It concerns two absentee homeowners who regularly rented out their homes in Oak Shores — a private community by the shores of Lake Nacimiento, offering amenities such as boating, golf, a pool, a campground and more.

The owners refused to pay their HOA’s annual fee of $325 for owners who rent out homes. In fact, they refused to pay a number of other fees, adding up to over tens of thousands of dollars by the time they brought suit. Their suit also challenged an HOA rule that homeowners who rented out their homes could not do so for periods of less than seven days, a rule limiting the number of cars, boats and other watercraft that renters were allowed to bring in, and more.

Neither the trial court nor the appeals court saw any merit in the homeowners’ arguments, agreeing with Oak Shores that renters are tough on a property and add to the HOA’s expenses and problems. What problems are these, you might wonder? The court cited issues to do with parking, lack of awareness of the rules, noise and use, and abuse of the facilities, requiring greater supervision and increased administrative expenses.

HOA boards around California probably have their eyes on this decision. If rules restricting rentals aren’t already in their rules or bylaws, they may be adding them soon.

Adopting an Orphan Not the Best Way to Help Nepal Quake Victims

nepal childAn estimated 4,000-plus children were left orphaned after the series of deadly quakes that hit the country of Nepal — and a number of well-meaning Americans (including Angelina Jolie, if you believe the rumors) are seeking to adopt them.

There’s just one problem. No, there are at least five problems.

1) Figuring out which children are truly orphans is going to take some time. As U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) recently cautioned, “It is not uncommon in an emergency for children to be temporarily separated from their parents, other family members or legal guardians. Efforts to reunite such children with family or legal guardians must be given priority.” No one (I hope) wants to bring a child into one’s family only to discover that its real parents want the child back.

2) What transpired after the earthquake in Haiti has left everyone cautious. In that case, many supposed orphans who’d already been airlifted to the U.S. turned out not to be orphans at all, leading the Child Rights International Network to publish this report on, “ADOPTION: EARTHQUAKE ORPHANS – WHAT NEPAL CAN LEARN FROM HAITI.”

3) The U.S. already has a rocky history when it comes to allowing adoptions from Nepal. In 2010, the U. S. Department of State and USCIS stopped processing new adoption cases from Nepal involving children claimed to have been found “abandoned,” because the documentation coming from there wasn’t reliable, and local officials were uncooperative or lied outright. (Abandonment is normally a ground for being considered an “orphan” under U.S. immigration law, along with, “the death or disappearance of, . . . desertion by, or separation or loss from, both parents.”) In fact, reports from around the world have criticized Nepal for having an “industry that dupes poor parents into sending their children to bogus orphanages in order to extract money from well-meaning foreigners.”

4) Even in the best of circumstances, U.S. immigration law and procedure makes adopting an orphan from overseas a long and difficult process. See Nolo’s series of articles on “Adopting a Child From Overseas.”

5) According to a report by NBC News, so many families from China want to adopt Nepal’s orphans that any American families will basically have to stand in line.

Fortunately, U.S. news outlets have detailed other, more realistic ways to help Nepal’s quake victims.

That Feeling of Being # 755,632 in Line for a U.S. Green Card

immigrant-children-ellis-islandOne of the least well understood aspects of U.S. immigration law is the visa “preference” system. The underlying issue is easy to understand: In certain categories where a family and employment relationship qualifies a non-citizen for a green card, the number of green cards (“immigrant visas”) that can actually given out per year is capped by law.

For example, only 23,000 visas are available annually to the unmarried sons or daughters of a U.S. citizen who are over age 21, only about 114,200 to the spouses and unmarried children of U.S. permanent residents (green card holders), and so on. The trouble, of course, is that many more people qualify for, and want, U.S. green cards than there are visas available. There’s always a waiting list, and it’s getting longer every year.

That’s where it gets difficult. Just how long the waiting list is getting is usually obscured by the way the U.S. government manages it. Instead of handing out numbers like my local U.S. Post Office does, it gives everyone a “Priority Date,” based on the exact day when their U.S. family-member or employer (called the “petitioner”) sent in the visa petition that starts off the application process.

Waiting would-be immigrants learn to check the State Department’s Visa Bulletin to see whether their Priority Date has appeared on the list yet. Only when they see it there can they move forward with applying for a visa — and until their date comes up, it’s difficult to guess how long the wait will be.

That’s why it’s so eye-opening to see actual numbers of how many people are in line. And the U.S. State Department just published these numbers for last year. If you’re over 21 and waiting for a visa through your U.S. citizen parent, guess what: 314,527 other people are waiting for the exact same thing. Hopefully your petitioner didn’t apply for you last week.

But you might feel better when you hear how many people are waiting for one of the 65,000 visas available annually to brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens. The total has reached 2,455,964. Some people in that category have been waiting for a visa since 1991. Unless, of course, you’ve also got a family member who’s in that category, still waiting. It sort of makes a hash of the “family reunification” that’s supposed to be the underlying principle at work here.

What Is Curb Appeal, Anyway?

butterflySpring is officially here, and the real estate market is responding just as it’s supposed to. Home prices are up across the United States, even reaching new highs in some areas. (Go, Colorado!)

Home sellers who’ve decided that now is the time to sell are, among other tasks, sprucing up their front yards in search of that elusive selling factor known as “curb appeal.”

What exactly is “curb appeal,” and how important is it in selling your home? The late, great real estate journalist Broderick Perkins called it “the first impression your home conveys to prospective buyers,” which “should arouse shoppers’ desire to own the home and entice them to cross the threshold.”

Crossing the threshold is a big deal, apparently. As Washington real estate agent Patricia Wangsness told me, “If the home doesn’t look good from the outside, buyers don’t want to get out of the car.” Many real estate agents have described the same experience.

That raises the question of what goes into making a house look “good.” A Coldwell Banker checklist of ways to improve curb appeal breaks it down into such categories as:

  • paint and siding
  • other parts of the home exterior, such as gutters, front door, and windows
  • flower beds, and
  • lawn.

In other words, it’s not just one thing, like landscaping, but a combo platter. Folks who like to measure things, and ask questions like, “What financial difference will it make if I invest in making my home’s exterior look better?” should not expect easy answers.

For instance, while a study by Clemson University reportedly found that upgrading landscaping from “good” to “excellent” could add 6% to 7% to a home’s value, a home with great landscaping could still have lousy curb appeal if the shingles and gutters were falling off.

Texas real estate agent Greg Nino confirms, “A home’s overall value can be raised, lowered, or destroyed depending on curb appeal” and related factors, but the exact difference is “impossible to quantify by percentage.”

Perhaps it would help to think of it as a combination of maintenance and aesthetics. The latter lures buyers in, while the former assures them that they’re not taking on a fixer-upper. Massachusetts real estate agent Nancy Atwood explains that curb appeal can be critical to home buyers who “feel that folks who take care of the outside of their home are more apt to do critical updates on the inside. So when they do drive by’s on homes, if the outside looks messy, unkempt or neglected, they tend to avoid those homes.”

When you come right down to it, the concept of curb appeal has a lot in common with that of judging a book by its cover—in both cases, the insides may be better than buyers expect, but that first impression is hard to shake. It may end up being the only impression.


One Person’s Junk Is Another’s Castle, in Ogden Utah

city illusAw, c’mon, are the city authorities really tearing down a kids’ cardboard fort in Ogden, Utah? It would appear so. According to news reports, Ogden City Code Enforcement ordered Jeremy and Dee Trentelman, parents, to remove the huge play castle that they’d put together for their two toddlers in their front yard.

It’s an impressive structure, built mostly of boxes, and containing a slide, trap door, tunnel, windows, and of course endless room for imagination. But the city is calling it “waste materials or junk,” and will penalize the Trentelmans $125 if they don’t get rid of it within 15 days.

Are cardboard castles really illegal in Ogden, Utah? To answer this, we have to go to the city codes. In Section 12-4-2 of the Property Maintenance Regulations, it says, “It is unlawful for any owner, occupant, agent or lessee of real property within the city, to allow, cause or permit the following material or objects to be in or upon any yard, garden, lawn, or outdoor premises of such property: 1. Junk or salvage material.”

That raises the obvious question, “What’s junk or salvage material?” As any lawyer can tell you, many laws and regulations contain a definitions section, and this one is no exception. Section 15-2-11 of the Definitions has this:

JUNK OR SALVAGE MATERIAL: Articles that are used, secondhand, worn out, obsolete, defective, destroyed or discarded and which may be reused or resold in their original form, or which may have outlived their usefulness in their original form and are commonly gathered up and sold to be converted into another product either of the same or a different kind by some manufacturing or recycling process, or which may be salvaged by separating, collecting, or retrieving reusable materials or parts therefrom. Junk or salvage material includes, but is not limited to, inoperable vehicles, auto parts or parts from other types of vehicles, tires, machinery or parts thereof, building materials, scrap metal or other scrap material, and recyclable materials when not located in a recycling processing center, but does not include refuse or hazardous materials. No article shall be considered “used” or “secondhand” for purposes of this definition, if the article is being used in its original form in conjunction with a main use established in conformance with this title, other than those uses involving salvaging or recycling. 

Okay, so arguably cardboard boxes, being used and recyclable, might be considered junk. But the more you look at this definition, the slipperier it gets. Would an artwork out of repurposed metal be junk? How about a faded plastic castle that was bought at a garage sale, and is therefore “used?”

The city can basically do what it wants with this definition, and it no doubt overlooks many objects that would meet it. So why did it go after the Trentelmans?

I would have guessed that a neighbor complained. The neighbors who were interviewed for the news coverage seemed supportive, but it just takes one to pick up the phone. Meanwhile, others in the community are actually building castles in solidarity! I’m looking forward to the photos.

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